What exactly is a “tablet”?

After duking it out on Google Plus and screaming in the streets about tablets (what is and is not), I figured we were due for an article discussing the whole tablet craze – once again in the interest of serving my fellow man.

What exactly defines what device is considered a “tablet”?  Ask 25 people, get 25 different answers.  Here is just a short list of what some people consider “tablet” defining characteristics:

  • Size of Screen (at least 7″)
  • Color Screen
  • Touch Screen
  • Plays Video and Music
  • Consumes PDFs Easily and Quickly
  • Provides other services (Navigation, Camera, etc)
  • Has a “slate shape”
  • … and the list goes on and on.

As you can see, the diversity in what makes a device considered a “tablet” is great.  How does the AVERAGE consumer know what to buy for his needs when everything from a Dell Streak to a Kindle Fire to an Asus Transformer are all called “tablets”?

Instead of just complaining about the problem, I’m here to offer a solution.  I’m going to help the industry actually put proper labels on these devices so that the consumer has a little easier time making their selection.

In my vernacular – there are three tablet types on the market:

  • Tablet PC
  • Media Tablet
  • Generic Tablet (aka Phone Tablet)

Pretty much any device out there today can easily slip into one of these categories.

The Tablet PC

Examples: iPadAsus TransformerAcer IconiaSamsung Galaxy TabMotorola Xoom
Price: $300+

By its very nature, a Tablet PC replaces large amounts of PC functionality.  In most cases, it has a tablet specific OS (Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich).  It has the ability to connect (wired or wirelessly) PC peripherals like mice and keyboards.  Removable storage and/or USB ports are usually found on these devices.

The Tablet PC should be usable for light working tasks like photo/video/HTML editing.  Being able to mirror the screen on a larger TV or monitor is a nice addition.

This device should also have access to the native App store of its OS (App Store/Google Market) as well as be able to access unsecured sources of applications.

Tablet PCs will typically show up in 10″ screen sizes (because that’s part of what makes it useful to do work on), but occasionally will show up in 7″-9″ sizes.

Your content is always welcome on a Tablet PC – either via the cloud or via expandable storage.  You’ll never have to hack around or alter your Tablet PC to get to your own stuff.

Finally, the ability to use it in a business environment – by having GPS services available, VOIP solutions (microphone, camera(s), etc) – adds frosting to the cake.

Media Tablet

Examples: Nook Color/TabletAmazon Fire
Price: $200-$300

These are dedicated media consumption devices.  They have been created to consume product from usually the vendor’s own services including books, magazines, music and video.

You won’t find the device’s native OS on here – at least, not on top.  Instead, you will find a very consumer friendly front end to the vendor’s content.  Underlying usually will be Android 2.x (Froyo or Gingerbread normally); whatever bare minimum was necessary to get the UI and services working.

Typically these devices come in 7″ sizes to facilitate large reductions in cost as well as appease customers with an easy-to-carry form factor.

While they do a great job for what they are intended, users will experience resistance when it comes to consuming their own content or otherwise use third-party apps or content.

Don’t look to be making this device a replacement for your laptop or netbook – because that just isn’t what it was meant to do.  You’ll find essential things missing; like Bluetooth and GPS services.  You may get access to expandable memory, but they won’t be overly helpful in using it.

You’ll find that Google’s services usually aren’t available here; instead you will get native apps provided by the vendor and a “vendor specific” store that will carry “the greatest hits”, but certainly won’t give you the depth of the official Market.

Hardware is usually more stripped down and custom based on the needs of the vendor to get their content to you so even though these devices are typically “hackable” into some semblance of their pure OS, the performance will take a hit.

Even “sideloading” Google services on these devices usually will not render the best experience since the units were really built up to a hardware standard required to get the particular media across.

Generic Tablet

Examples: ArchosVelocity Cruz
Price: $69-$199

You can find these “wanna-be” tablets everywhere; discount houses, drug stores – pretty much anywhere.  These all run some faction of the Android OS (many running Android 1.6-2.1; usually “Froyo” at best) and feature “resistive” (meaning ‘use a stylus for best results’), lower quality screens than their more expensive counterparts.

Most of these cheap tablets will have very little in the way of hardware under the hood and are really more novelty items than anything else; something to get your feet wet – but rarely anything substantial.

You aren’t likely to find Google services here, although some remarkably decent generic tablets can be found in the $149-$199 range; including GPS and Google services.

Just be warned that anything under $199 is going to suffer in the screen department; both in quality and touch sensitivity.  The Velocity Cruz models offer decent quality screens at reasonable prices, while the Archos models often show the least responsive touch screens.

If you’re scoping one of these generic tablets, I recommend a trip to Amazon.com and see what people have to say about the unit and how it is rated.

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+